Malik ’18: Don’t pull the trigger warning

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, September 17, 2015

In their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” featured in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write that they believe certain student actions illustrate a general trend toward students protecting themselves from “words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Lukianoff, the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, write that these actions include calls for disciplinary proceedings against those who have committed microagressions and requests for trigger warnings on course materials.

Lukianoff and Haidt believe that the label of a trigger warning may cause students to expect a negative reaction to the material they must read or watch for class, leading them to not fully engage with important readings and videos. They also believe that the prevalence of trigger warnings can arouse an unnecessary fear of the course materials in students who do not have post-traumatic stress disorder. They contend that allowing those who have faced traumatic experiences and suffer from PTSD to encounter triggering material in the safety of a classroom can allow them to get better. They therefore recommend that colleges and universities officially discourage trigger warnings.

The question of whether or not to provide trigger warnings arises at the clash of two conflicting needs: the need to protect students’ mental health and the need to have them confront and grapple with difficult issues in a useful way. I disagree with the notion that trigger warnings are a problem and should be discouraged by administrators.

While triggering texts might be helpful tools for people recovering from PTSD, these individuals should not be expected to read such works in a classroom without any warnings. Texts that address traumatic experiences in a thoughtful and compassionate way can help someone who has faced trauma confront what occurred, better understand the incident and ultimately gain strength. A novel about an abusive relationship that is based on the writer’s personal experiences can allow someone who has experienced domestic abuse to see how someone can confront similar trauma, overcome it and produce meaningful art. An essay about what can be done to reduce incidents of racial violence can help someone who has suffered from racial violence feel empowered and inspired to work toward an important cause after graduation. Pain can lead to strength. Yet before feeling strong, someone who has been hurt has to heal, and this should happen with the help of a mental health professional, not through class readings. After working with a counselor or psychologist for some time, a student who has had a traumatic experience may feel ready to engage with texts that would have triggered negative responses earlier.

Furthermore, as Aaron Hanlon, a professor at Colby College, explains in his response piece to the Atlantic article, entitled “The Trigger Warning Myth” and published in The New Republic, an instructor can create better classroom dynamics and develop a stronger relationship with students by warning them about the class material. Hanlon explains that trigger warnings generally do not discourage students from engaging with the course work, and if an instructor notices a student avoiding a text with a trigger warning, the instructor can check with the student to see if the student needs help with mental health or other issues. Such effective and thoughtful teaching would not be possible if universities simply discouraged trigger warnings.

Yet I do share some of the concern that Lukianoff and Haidt express. In their article, they describe how a task force at Oberlin College released a guide for trigger warnings in 2013. The guide stated that materials about topics such as classism and privilege require trigger warnings. This task force also advised against teaching material that could trigger negative experiences unless it was absolutely necessary for the course.

I do not want what happened at Oberlin to occur elsewhere. Texts and videos that can be triggering should be taught if they contain the proper warning. The material that is worth teaching usually captures an essential idea or truth about the world and human experiences, including truths about suffering, pain and other difficult matters.

College students need to be protected psychologically. They also need to learn about societal ills, injustices and suffering in order to be prepared for life and work toward making the world better. I hope that the University will not adopt an extreme position on the matter of trigger warnings, neither discouraging their use nor forbidding the teaching of materials that might be triggering, and that it will continue to suitably address the needs of students in the classroom.

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  1. For the love of god, give it a rest already. It’s just embarrassing at this point.

  2. “College students need to be protected psychologically”, sure. Worst thing, psychologically, for a student is crushing debt. Do something about that.

  3. If someone has PTSD, wouldnt it make more sense to have the person 1) first bring a notice from a psychiatrist for confirmation, and 2) work with the professor and psychiatrist privately to establish a specialized schedule thats agreed to by all parties? It makes NO sense to impose their PTSD requirements on the rest of the class.

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